07 July 2011

Why People Pray

Editor's Note: As some have already pointed out, I was not clear enough in this article about what kind of prayer I was referring to (see Michael's insightful comment below). Here I'm examining only the petitionary or supplicatory prayer, the one that asks the Divine for specific things. There are entire realms of meditative practices (including "relational" prayer, intended to bring one closer to one's deity) that aren't the subject of this post. Apologies for not dealing with that better initially.

I'm occasionally bewildered about why people pray, in the face of so much evidence that prayers are often unanswered. And yes, I know all the standard orthodox responses to such a statement, including “God always answers prayers, but sometimes His answer is 'No,'” or, “God's wisdom is beyond human understanding,” or even “God gives us what we need, not what we want.”

These responses would be less lame if they weren't often used in the context of horrible events. Whether it's prayers for the cure of someone's terminal illness, or prayers for someone's safety, or prayers for the end of wars, devotees will fall on their knees (or click on their Facebook and Twitter pages) and pray for a positive outcome of a particular situation. As often as not, these devotees will ultimately be disappointed.

You might expect that after being disappointed time and again by their deities, the devotees would either lose faith or perhaps consider the possibility that divine intervention is not a genuine phenomenon of life. And yet they persist. Adherents of numerous religious traditions around the world supplicate their chosen deity/deities, hoping for divine favor in their hour of need.

So why do they do it? Because sometimes it works, or at least sometimes it appears to work.

Mind you, I'm not interested (at the moment) in rendering judgment on whether divine intervention does occur, or whether the prayers of the faithful really are answered by their divinity, or even whether one can change the structure of water molecules by directing certain energy or music toward them. What I find more interesting in this context is the motivation behind the faithful's supplications. If your god answers your prayers on a seemingly random basis, intuitively that seems a reason to stop praying and just allow your god to work on his own whims.

Surprisingly enough, however, the seeming randomness of answered prayers is exactly the motivation for the devotees' behavior. In behavioral psychology, this is known as variable (or random) intermittent reinforcement. Of all the types of reinforcement schedules, it is by far the most potent.

In experiments with lab rats, researchers demonstrated that providing reinforcement to the rats' behaviors (usually dispensing food pellets in response to pressing a lever) on a random schedule was much more successful in training the rats to perform said behavior than was merely providing reinforcement for each instance of the behavior, or even reinforcing the behavior on a regular schedule (every 5th or 10th, e.g.).

This explains why gambling is such an addictive behavior for some. Imagine yourself watching a room full of people playing slot machines. Eventually, someone is going to hit a big jackpot. There's really no way of knowing which person, or which machine, is going to have the next payout. But you know that one will, eventually. So people keep putting coin after coin in the machines, pulling that lever again and again in hopes that they'll receive a big jackpot (the human equivalent of food pellets).

Gamblers also tend to exhibit superstitious behavior. They'll often wear “lucky” clothes, or use a particular slot machine, or say or do something out of the ordinary in hopes of bolstering their good fortune. They engage in these rituals based on the belief (spoken or not) that they might have some effect on their desired outcomes.

Am I calling God a celestial slot machine? Perhaps. But again, that's a discussion for another time. I really am simply interested in what motivates these supplicants, why it is that they can continue to have faith in the face of such a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

Yes, they believe because they want to believe, because facing the universe with a benevolent, omnipotent deity on your side is a lot more reassuring than facing the universe alone. It's a cold hard world out there, and it's not for the existentially timid. But they also believe because of how we're all neurologically hard-wired.

And so religion goes on. Devotees pray and pray and pray, and every once in a while, one of those prayers yields what appears to be a miraculous (or at least highly unlikely) outcome. Word of this miracle spreads like wildfire among the faithful. Others are motivated to pray even more devoutly, hoping that if their god answered one prayer, he just might look down with favor upon their requests also, hoping that they too can hit the prayer jackpot.


Michael said...

Interesting post, Dan. It might be more interesting if you included more of your personal beliefs and practices. :)
Personally, I believe in prayer and use it more as a way to draw closer to God or improve my relationship with God as opposed to asking for a favor from God. I really do find that I feel more connected to God when I pray often (which for me is once or twice a day) than when I don't.

Dan said...

Michael, thanks for the follow-up. You've touched on something that I didn't specifically address but which makes a lot of sense, that prayer, meditation, or any similar practice doesn't necessarily need to be about asking for a particular outcome. In fact, it's probably a better practice when it isn't.

As for my own practices, I am always much more centered and "in tune" when I spend 15-20 minutes in focused, mindful meditation first thing in the morning.